Synodality and the Question of Ecclesial Harmony

COMMENTARY: What does the debate over ‘Fiducia Supplicans’ show us about the relationship in the Catholic Church between the authority of the pope and that of the bishops?

Colonnade, St. Peter’s Square
Colonnade, St. Peter’s Square (photo: Unsplash)

In the immediate aftermath of the release of the declaration from the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (Fiducia Supplicans), we have seen many bishops and episcopal conferences state that they will not implement its decrees, especially with regard to the extension of priestly blessings to those in “irregular” relationships such as homosexual couples or the divorced and remarried. I have written elsewhere of my own deep reservations with the document and will not revisit that here.

I am actually more interested, given the heated ecclesial environment right now, about what the current debate shows us about the relationship in the Church between the authority of the pope and that of the bishops. And I think this is especially timely given all of the emphasis this papacy has placed on the idea of a more synodal, and less centrally Roman, governing structure for the Church.

Along these lines, one of the greatest achievements of the Second Vatican Council, although still hotly disputed by some, was to complete the unfinished business of Vatican I and recover the concept of episcopal collegiality and its proper role within the Church’s governing structure. Stated in its simplest construal, one could say that “collegiality” means an affirmation of the full co-responsibility of all the bishops of the world to govern the Church with the pope; that each and every bishop in virtue of his ordination has received by divine right the power to teach, govern and sanctify those entrusted to his care, and that these three functions (munera in Latin) are not privileges granted to them by some kind of papal delegation of power, but from God himself (de jure divino). In other words, the Second Vatican Council sought to rein in a runaway papalism that had so exaggerated the centrality of the pope in the Church’s life that the bishops had come to be viewed as mere vassals of an all-powerful monarch or, to put it in more modern terms, as mere branch managers of a corporation known as Catholic Inc. and with the pope as the CEO.

The Council’s dogmatic constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, emphasized that the pope has universal jurisdictional authority over the Church, but that the bishops, taken collectively as a body, also had a supreme authority within the Church, but that this authority was not independent of the pope’s but a participation within the universal authority that the pope has uniquely as the successor of St. Peter.

In short, the pope can make universal decisions even without the consent of the bishops, but the bishops cannot make collective decisions on their own without the full consent of the pope. This is why not even an ecumenical council can teach something independently from the pope and that any council would be invalid without papal approval. Here is the salient passage from Lumen Gentium on the topic:

“The order of bishops, which succeeds to the college of apostles and gives this apostolic body continued existence, is also the subject of supreme and full power over the universal Church, provided we understand this body together with its head the Roman Pontiff and never without this head” (22).

Key to understanding this passage is that the Council states that the bishops, taken as a collegial body, are also the “subject” of supreme authority in the Church. Here the word “subject” means that it is an active agent of the Holy Spirit in its own right, even if that agency can only be properly exercised in union with the pope. Peter is the sole “rock” upon which Jesus has conferred the keys to the Kingdom. Nevertheless, Jesus gave the powers of “binding and loosing” to all of the apostles taken together, as Lumen Gentium makes clear (22).

This teaching was also reemphasized by Pope John Paul in his 1995 encyclical on the commitment to ecumenism, Ut Unum Sint. He states clearly that the central responsibility of the Petrine office is the creation of unity via the path of holding fast to revealed Truth and that, “[b]y thus bearing witness to the truth, he serves unity” (94). But then he immediately adds in the next section:

“All this however must always be done in communion. When the Catholic Church affirms that the office of the Bishop of Rome corresponds to the will of Christ, she does not separate this office from the mission entrusted to the whole body of Bishops, who are also ‘vicars and ambassadors of Christ.’ The Bishop of Rome is a member of the ‘College,’ and the Bishops are his brothers in the ministry.”

Therefore, the recent efforts by Pope Francis to promote a more “synodal” Church where the pope really does govern the Church via the path of full consultation with the entire “People of God” is something fully in line with the reforms called for by Vatican II. And it is a vision of the Church grounded in the Council’s “Ecclesiology of Communion” that I think most theologians, myself included, fully endorse.

In such an ecclesiology, the pope still has the right to make decisions in a non-consultative and unilateral manner when needed. But in a more synodal Church of “communion,” such actions should be infrequent and the result of strong exigent circumstances that demand strong, unilateral, papal action. In a synodal Church the bonds of communion between the pope and the bishops should be such that the two forms of authority become inherent to such an extent that the majority of pastoral decisions that affect the whole Church are made only after a process of deep ecclesial discernment involving the entire episcopacy, to the extent that this is possible without compromising papal supremacy.

For these reasons, I was at first very pleased with the Vatican’s emphasis on synodality. But as events transpired, many observers, me included, began to see signs that the entire affair appeared to be a stalking horse for issues having nothing to do with synodality. Again, I have written elsewhere on this topic (here, here and here) and do not have the space to go into all those issues again. But at the very least, the stated aims of so many of the voting synodal members to change Church teaching on all manner of hot-button issues is an indication that there was a generalized lack of definitional clarity as to just what the whole affair was really about. And none of the Vatican press releases did much to assuage this lack of clarity.

Furthermore, there seems to be no clarity coming from this papacy on the issue of collegiality and synodality from any changes in the governing style of the pope in actual practice. What we see instead of broad collegial consultation on pastoral matters that affect the entire Church is a pope who seems to prefer to govern using the unilateral fiat of the papal motu proprio.

For example, Traditionis Custodes, which severely curtailed the use of the Tridentine liturgy and which abrogated Benedict XVI’s Summorum Pontificum, was promulgated after a questionnaire was sent out to bishops on the topic. But the results of the questionnaire have never been released nor were any of the main lines of response from the bishops highlighted in Traditionis as the justification for its decisions. The entire questionnaire just seems to have been left behind, which raises questions about just how collegial this decision really was. And no matter what one thinks of Traditionis, the fact is that its implementation can hardly be described as synodal. And what makes this worse is that it is on an issue of central importance to the Church — the Mass — that has been debated within the Church for 60 years now without deep resolution. Therefore, if any issue called for a more collegial and synodal consultation process, this was it.

And now we have in short succession the motu proprio Ad Theologiam Promovendam, which I have written about in these pages, followed by the declaration from the DDF, Fiducia Supplicans. The former is on the reform of theology in the Church and was promulgated without any deep consultation with the bishops (or theologians for that matter), and the latter, as stated above, deals with changes in how we understand priestly blessings of those in irregular relationships and was also promulgated without widespread consultation with the bishops.

And again, as with Traditionis and the reform of the liturgy, so, too, with Fiducia. We are dealing with a topic of tremendous importance within the Church on a foundational pastoral level with enormous cultural and ecclesial ramifications. And at least one bishop has taken notice and complained about precisely this point — the lack of synodal consultation.

Bishop José Ignacio Munilla of Orihuela-Alicante in Spain has rightly, in my view, defended Fiducia against those who say it is heretical. Furthermore, he sees in it nothing explicitly contrary to the faith. Nevertheless, he is deeply disappointed in the governing process by which the document was created and promulgated.

Bishop Munilla is concerned that, since this is a topic on a very sensitive issue, more consultation would have been better. He states in a CNA interview that since this “is a particularly debated and sensitive issue, it’s surprising that they did not proceed in a synodal manner, in line with the ecclesiology of the Second Vatican Council. We would have been spared the dissenting reactions of episcopal conferences that we are witnessing, for example.”

I could not agree more. As a theologian who loves and supports the teachings of Vatican II, I find that the emphasis in this papacy on synodality has not actually been implemented and lived out in its actual governing style. And as such, that represents a monumentally missed opportunity.

Fiducia Supplicans, unfortunately, is just the latest example of this sad reality. My point is not that this is a great document and I am just objecting to how it was promulgated. Rather, I think it is a deeply flawed document that could have been much, much better, had it been the result of a truly synodal and collegial process of broad ecclesial discernment.

Edward Reginald Frampton, “The Voyage of St. Brendan,” 1908, Chazen Museum of Art, Madison, Wisconsin.

Which Way Is Heaven?

J.R.R. Tolkien’s mystic west was inspired by the legendary voyage of St. Brendan, who sailed on a quest for a Paradise in the midst and mists of the ocean.